meet the maker: Faribault Woolen Mill Co.
words by Georgia Sparling
Faribault Woolen Mill Co. is the ultimate American comeback story. In four years, the 150-year-old company has rebounded from oblivion to once again becoming a name synonymous with comfort and quality.
“We like to call ourselves a 150-year-old startup,” says Bruce Bildsten, chief marketing officer for Faribault.
After five generations of family ownership and years of flagging sales, an investment group purchased the mill in 2009, shutting it down and sending home the workers who had spent decades making woolen blankets and throws.
When Minnesota natives Paul and Chuck Mooty first stepped into the old mill in 2011, the basement was flooded, the equipment was ready to be shipped to Pakistan, and a bulldozer was on the horizon. Long-time employee Dennis Melchert had been charged with showing off the building, and his love of the place helped convince the cousins to take a gamble on the business.
“They’re a great Minnesota family and really had the courage and the wherewithal to do it,” says Bildsten.
Without the expert machinists and craftspeople, however, Faribault Mill 2.0 would have been a nonstarter. So, the Mootys put out a call to past employees, who left new jobs and even retirement to return to their old posts.
“They just kind of got the band back together,” Bildsten says.
The strategy for Faribault Mill was to get back to basics. Before it closed, the company had incorporated acrylic yarns and spread out production to mills across the U.S. Now, everything would again be made in the 1892 mill, one of only three in the country that starts with the raw wool, dyes it, spins it, and weaves it.
Miraculously, many of the company’s catalogs and products were preserved over the past 150 years, and those have been the basis for the current designs.
“Plaids and stripes, they’re just timeless,” says Bildsten.
The response from the public, locally, nationally, and globally was immediately positive. The American made movement was already in full swing, and the return of a trusted brand was met with sales, press, and high-profile partnerships that included Ralph Lauren and Target. It also didn’t hurt that many of the company’s tried and true plaid designs catch the eye of everyone from hipsters to grandmothers.
Bildsten said the company’s reemergence also came at a time when people were looking for quality over quantity, something that has been a staple of the Faribault brand. “You can’t spend a day in our store without someone saying, ‘I still have the blanket my grandmother gave me,’” he says. After all, “nothing replaces a good wool blanket.”
Customers have agreed, and strong sales have brought the company up to more than 100 employees in a few short years. Those people, from machinists to marketers, feel a sense of responsibility to their work and the mill’s long heritage. “Everyday we look at it as an honor to be here, and we feel like we have an obligation to the people that work here and the history of this place to do right by it,” Bildsten says. “It’s both an honor and a great sense of duty.”